Leadership Principle No. 16–Clean Up Your Act

Until a few days ago, the chairman of the board of trustees of Roger Williams University in Rhode Island was 80-year-old Ralph Papitto. In fact, this gentleman had served on that board for 40 years, and over the years had contributed some $7 million to the school. It’s a private school, perhaps a religious institution since Mr. Williams was a Baptist and, if I remember my history, was pastor of the First Baptist Church of Providence which was the first of its kind in the new world.

The point being that, by all appearances, Mr. Papitto was a powerful man who was trying to do good with his life. And in a sense, in his own mind at least, he was untouchable. He had money and position and needed nothing from anyone, he thought.

One day a few weeks ago, the trustees received a complaint that the board was not diverse enough. No minorities sat on the board; it was all white men and a couple of white women.

Well sir, Mr. Papitto did not like outsiders telling him what to do with his school. He made some derogatory remark about the criticism and in the process used the N-word.

That’s all he did. Used the N-word. And I don’t mean “nuclear.” I refer to the racial putdown, the well-known expression called the ugliest racial slur and the most inflammatory term in the English language in a couple of references I looked up.

After the board meeting, when three trustees took exception to what Papitto said and called for his resignation, they themselves were kicked off.


When word got out in the community, everyone rose up in arms and the result was that Mr. Papitto was forced to resign from the board, and the college voted to take his name off its school of law, the only such institution in tiny Rhode Island.

Not knowing this gentleman, my comments here are meant only as generalities and nothing personal. But I would suggest that the world changed around Mr. Papitto and he failed to recognize it. There was a time when he could have gotten by with racial slurs, even in institutions of higher learning or in a church, for that matter. But that time has come and gone.

Call it political correctness, if you like, but you could just as easily make a case for it being an attempt to make the human language more compassionate. That’s why racial putdowns are no longer abided, the way they used to be, no matter what group you are assailing.

These days, the man or woman who would be a leader must clean up his language. (I know, I know–part of that means neutering our gender pronouns. I try to do that somewhat, but not to get carried away with it.)

The person who becomes a leader in God’s church should sanitize his language. Nothing like profanity should ever pass his lips, and certainly nothing approaching obscenities.

As a child, I attended a Friday night community singing with my parents and was impressed by a man who was recognized as writing one of the familiar hymns we were singing. The next day, I stood beside my Dad on the street corner in the county seat as he chatted with that same man. I was shocked to hear profanity coming from the man’s mouth.

My dad was a hardworking and strong-talking coal miner, so nothing in the way of profanity itself was unknown to me. What was strange was this man who presented himself as a solid Christian speaking such words.

After 45 years in the ministry of the local church, I’m still not accustomed to that. It has no place in the Christian’s speech, but particularly coming from the mouth of a minister.

Before leaving this subject, there are a few more words which are proper and legitimate but which can be misunderstood even when used carefully. You might want to be aware of them and if you use them, do so carefully and appropriately.

The word “succor” means “help” and “aid.” Some Catholic churches are named “Our Lady of Prompt Succor,” referring to a conviction and hope that the Virgin Mary will answer prayers quickly with assistance. The problem with this little word in that in our language, it sounds exactly like “sucker,” which has an altogether different connotation.

At a banquet in honor of a wealthy benefactor, the president of the college was so elated with the large financial gift the man was donating, he prayed, “And Lord, we thank Thee for this succor which Thou has provided.” The man stormed out of the banquet and canceled the check.

Or how about the word “niggardly.” It’s an honorable word with several centuries of history behind it, and means “miserly” or “cheap.” I’ve heard of instances in which the word was used correctly, but because the hearer did not understand its meaning and associated it too closely with the N-word, angry words were spoken and relations were broken needlessly.

Cleaning up one’s language means learning to speak correct English, and dropping expressions that offend the hearer, detract from the point, or debase the speaker.

“Let your speech always be gracious.” (Colossians 4:6)

1 thought on “Leadership Principle No. 16–Clean Up Your Act

  1. Highly agree with the expectation of not even letting one ‘slip’ every now & again, as some might suggest would be acceptable. But the reasoning and power behind the “Cleaning -up” of the language, si a much Heftier task of “Purifying the heart”, where the practical application comes from Micah 6:8, and the expanded version is set-forth throughout Matthew, especially in chapters 4 – 10 where the Inner Character is developed, and the outer person is thus molded. Mind over Matter, Master over self.

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